The Natural History of the Independent Authors Guild -Celia Hayes

The Natural History of the Independent Authors Guild -Celia Hayes

More than any other resource which served to launch me and a fair number of other writers as independently published authors was an eccentric on-line discussion group called the Independent Authors Guild. The first website still exists, to my vague surprise, along with the later wordpress iteration, and the Yahoo discussion group itself, but both are presently close to moribund. The original participating members got what they needed from the group when they needed it desperately. Having done so – we moved moved on; the specifics of publishing and marketing that we shared early on are now available to prospective indy authors from a wide variety of easily-located sources.

We did have some thought early on towards being a professional organization, with membership dues, a board of directors, and the capacity to give a stamp of approval to deserving books. But that level of organization is a time sink the size of Grand Canyon, and the one thing which just about all of the early contributors had in common was that we had day jobs and squeezed in our book-scribbling on the side. We settled forbeing an information forum and support section for each other in the cause of writing the very best books that we could outside of the traditional publishing model, and sharing resources and accumulated knowledge to our mutual benefit.

What became the Guild began around mid-summer of 2007 with an Amazon discussion launched by Dianne Salerni, who at that time had written a single YA historical about the Fox sisters. Dianne invited any author with a historical novel published independently through a POD (publish on demand) house, or by a small traditional publisher to share tips and strategies for marketing our books. Writing the book, as we all had separately discovered, was only half the job. Marketing it was the other half. Dianne was at the time (and may still be) a grade school teacher. The authors who responded to the invitation were all over the map, both in professions and geography. Only one that I know of was even a semi-professional writer, although a few had hung around on the periphery of the traditional publishing game; lawyers, academics, techies, graphic designers, a long-time financial advisor for non-profits …there was a lot of real-world professional experience out there among us. One of the first joint projects undertaken for marketing books was to take a table at a local festival market, which worked out quite splendidly for the half-dozen author members located close enough so that they could participate. This inspired us to set up a website of our own, as well as the Yahoo discussion group, which would be easier to manage than the Amazon thread.

Only two or three of the original writers appeared to have more than a single book out; Janet Elaine Smith was the champion of all, with something like eighteen. She was a retired missionary living in the mid-west, with a whole string of Christian romances and historicals and a part-time job as publicist at a small traditional regional press. Janet was a bubbling fountain of information, as well as being an advocate of thinking outside the box when it came to places to sell your books. For example, it was her suggestion – and only one of dozens – that bed and breakfasts and boutique shops located near the setting of your book might be excellent outlets for your book. It was also her suggestion to always carry postcards, or book markers, or business cards with your book information on them, and when people casually asked about what you do for a living, always admit to being a writer, because the next question invariably would be, “Well, what do you write?” She was also the one who explained how every book that we wrote was an advertisement for all of our other books. This is probably common knowledge among author entrepreneurs now, but in 2007 it was new to most of us – who again were mostly first-time authors with little experience in marketing our own books. And a website with a domain name reflecting the author’s name were the best, rather than a website tailored around the title of your book or some off-the-wall title where it wouldn’t be obvious. Because of course you were going to write more books. Most of us did go on to write more … just like Janet Elaine.

Janet had been doing the end run around traditional publishing for years. If I remember correctly, one of her early books had been printed on a copier at the local office supply store and assembled with a plastic comb binding. Only one other early member had any serious connection to the rarified world of traditional best-sellerdom; Lloyd Lofthouse, whose wife is Anchee Min. Lloyd had written an epic historical set in 19th century China, “My Splendid Concubine” and regaled us with horrific stories now and again concerning questionable contracts, and the shenanigans that even an author with a contract with one of the big traditional publishing houses might expect. It was his considered opinion that between the inexpensive technology of POD/digital printing and the development of on-line retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble allowed us to route around the gatekeepers of what I called the Literary-Industrial Complex to our greater benefit. Better we should turn our energies away from trying to catch the brass ring of a traditional publishing contract, and concentrate on the new paradigm of independent publishing. He also suggested blogging in as many different venues as an adjunct to writing novels … and to dress up in something eye-catching when doing an appearance for your book. He favored dressing in classic Chinese brocaded Mandarin robes, which is about as eye-catching as you could get.

A handful of other writers had already set up as their own publisher, rather than deal with one of the existing POD publishers, as I had initially with my first two books. Frances Hunter – actually two sisters from Austin, Texas – had done that for a wonderfully evocative novel about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and then a follow-up about Lewis & Clark’s early years, pre-expedition into the far west. Michael S. Katz also set up his own tiny publishing company, Strider Nolan Media, to do his first book – a skewed western adventure about a Jewish railway detective on the hunt for train robbers on the frontier, titled Shalom on the Range. When I did the first edition of the Adelsverein Trilogy, Mike published them under the aegis of Strider Nolan. He has since published other books by early IAG contributors, notably for Jack Shakely and Barry Yelton. Jack and Barry both had novels set in the Civil War, based on the experiences of a veteran ancestor, but Jack’s was set in the Cherokee Nation, titled “The Confederate War Bonnet.” Eventually, I partnered with a small local publisher to set up a POD imprint to publish my own books and those of others.

Barry also did a book of poetry, illustrated with photographs taken by Al Past, of Beeville, Texas – yet another early IAG member. Al wrote a sort-of science fiction adventure series, “Distant Cousin” – another of those books which defy easy categorization, and I would swear that he was an even better photographer than a writer. He let me use his photographs for the Trilogy, and for Daughter of Texas. Oh, yes, – intense were the discussions over how to get the biggest bang, impact-wise for next to nothing, when it came to covers. F. J. Warren suggested using landscape photographs with an artistic filter to look like a painting and someone else – I cannot recollect who – thought that period architecture or a still life of authentic artifacts could also work well. Utilizing classic art in the public domain was another useful suggestion – backed up with links to sources for this kind of thing. And how and where to get reviews of our books? This was another looming issue, resolved by Michael Katz. He even told us about what to put in a press kit; a revelation to those of us who had never even considered the question before.

Another early member, who sadly passed away early in the life of the IAG was Stephen Knutson, a retired game warden living in Alaska. He had a memoir about his life, growing up in Boise, Idaho, which contained one of the most purely comic chase scenes I have ever read. In an attempt to escape the local police who were chasing him – not without reason, for he and his buddy had just ripped off the front door of the rival high school in town by means of attaching a chain from the hitch of his pick-up truck through the door handle – Stephen and his buddy took a short-cut at high speed through a downtown park, with the door flapping and bouncing along behind them. After one particularly violent lurch, the door bounced up and knocked a static aircraft on display in the park clean off its plinth. This is possibly the only time in history that an aircraft has been shot down by a high-flying door … and many of Stephen’s stories were in a similar vein. But he was the one who outlined, step by step, how to format a manuscript into a file for print publication, and how to set up an account at Lightning Source International. He and others instructed us on how to set pricing, and the importance of the 40% discount and returnability, in order to get our books available in retail outlets through Ingram, the distributor associated with LSI.

All of this terribly useful information was scattered hither and yon the length and breadth of the internet, or socked away in various book blogs, so it was no end useful to have it all filtered and gathered into a single long and wide-ranging discussion among people who had real-life experience relevant to the issues. By very fortunate circumstance, just as the IAG coalesced, Amazon brought out the first generation Kindle, and invited authors to make their books available on Amazon in Kindle e-book versions. The most technology-minded of our members realized the implications of this almost instantly; no more print and distribution costs. Many of us rushed to Amazon to set up our books in Kindle edition that year, seeing an opportunity somewhat in advance of the panjandrums of the Literary Industrial Complex. It was a fraught and tedious process that first year, and the Kindles themselves did not become immediately popular. By Christmas 2008 they had become the electronic toy of choice, and Amazon had worked out most of the bugs involved. Through lengthy discussion, we had also settled on pricing: .99 was an undervaluing of one’s work, although it was a madly popular choice for some e-book authors. The price of a good cup of gourmet coffee – from $3 to $5 was the sweet spot; just enough that our hard work was rewarded, but sufficiently inexpensive that potential readers might be tempted to dip into a book by a relative unknown. If the reader liked it – then they (per Janet Elaine) might be interested enough to try out our other books.

As for when the discussions on the IAG board began to slack off? I would guess at about 2011 or 2012. Increasingly the essential information to publish independently became more or less common knowledge, and those of us who had been active early on had less and less inclination to plow over old ground. We had what we needed from the group discussions, and varying degrees of success in applying the principles learned. Diane Salerni, who began it all, actually got a contract from a moderately sized publishing house. So did Brandy Purdy – and sometime in about 2009, I got a frantic email message from another author member who had also just gotten an offer of a contract, and wanted me to remove her name and book from the IAG website forthwith. In her mind, it would have been very embarrassing to be identified as an indy author. Regardless of that, Frances, Michael, and I, along with some other contributors, still own and run Tiny Publishing Businesses of our own. And to judge by a quick check on Amazon, most of the rest are still writing … independently.

Links –

37 thoughts on “The Natural History of the Independent Authors Guild -Celia Hayes

    1. Oh, it was – and the ones who hung in and got serious about writing have come out with some amazing stuff, since.
      It’s pretty well finished now, when there are so many discussion groups on LinkedIn, or facebook, or other sites where you can get what the IAG members provided – but just about everything I know about writing and publishing I learned there, or from my business partner in the Tiny Publishing Bidness.

  1. Where is Blockbuster today? Gee, you mean NetFlix with internet delivery of a digital product has put the old style ‘movie publishing’ industry in the grave?

    You need look no farther than Macmillan’s ‘mission statement’: “Macmillan is dedicated to publishing today’s best writers and thinkers in all formats via a group of prestigious independent publishers built on centuries of tradition and innovation.” to see how totally far their heads are up buried in the sand their heads are.

    Now, I know this denial runs rampant through many of the ‘tradition and innovation’ publishing media, including newspapers and magazines. In fact, it comes as no surprise that Scientific American, a truly leading edge publication in the 1970-80s has become a pathetic outlet for politically correct scolding is a Macmillan ‘product’.

    I love my Kindle Voyager, although Amazon still has some work to do. Formatting is a major issue, some books seem to be double spaced, and others single spaced, there is limited control. Font sizes are pico- nano- micro- small readable-small readable-large and 3-word/screen GIANT. I think it is a ‘one software solution to several screen sizes’ involved here, and a little more user control would be nice.

    1. I have a 1st Gen Kindle Paperwhite, plus the iPad which I use for more scholarly material. Generally I am pretty happy with formatting on that screen, although I might have sprung for the Voyager because of the greater dpi. Based on what you told us I think I’ll stick with the Paperwhite.

      1. If you are young and can read the smaller fonts, the dpi helps. It is lighter than the Paperwhite. I turned the frame control buttons off first thing. I usually read in landscape mode, so they weren’t helpful.
        For a new purchase, I think the Voyage (I just discovered it wasn’t Voyager… oh well) is about 40% more cost wise.
        My Aunt has a Fire, and while the extra screen is nice, it is heavy. My only regret with the Paperwhite/Voyage is that the book covers look pretty lame in monochrome.

  2. As one of those who profits from the independent press movement from consuming end I thank you.

  3. Thanks. I’ll have to check this out. I have yet to publish so a lot of this will probably be new to me.

  4. I look now at the Literary Industrial Complex, think of Ozymandias in the sands of time and despair. They are too heavily invested in the publishing equivalent of Betamax.

  5. Hey, Celia! What a blast from the past! This was an amazing group with people who freely gave their time and energy for the good of all. In answer to your question, I retired from teaching elementary school last June. That decision speaks more to my disgust and frustration with our testing oriented public education system than to how much money I’m making at writing, LOL. However, I did pick up a part time gig at a local community college, where I teach courses on “Writing for the Children’s Market” and “Paths to Publication.” I cover the basics of self-publishing vs small press vs traditional, and my experience in IAG is invaluable for this. As is everything I learned about marketing. I still use many of the marketing strategies I picked up from other IAG members because even though I’m recently published through HarperCollins, most of the marketing still falls to ME.

    1. “…even though I’m recently published through HarperCollins, most of the marketing still falls to ME.”

      Yep – that was what Janet Elaine and Lloyd always said. 🙂

    2. “…even though I’m recently published through HarperCollins, most of the marketing still falls to ME.”

      This seems to be a common complaint from practically all traditional published authors except the BIG NAMES.

  6. For a long time independent publishing suffered under the onus of being conflated with its evil cousin, vanity press. I rather suspect this view was encouraged by that same Literary Industrial Complex (love that term by the way) who had a vested interest in convincing authors that they were the only legitimate path to publication. Thank the ghods that is rapidly going away.
    Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it is important to remember that Amazon is not a publisher, they are the distributor for you the indie author publisher. True they do have assorted guidelines that can be quite helpful, but the responsibility for all aspects of the final product rest firmly on your own shoulders. That said, I highly recommend anyone at all interested in a career in self publishing to register with Amazon if only to get their monthly newsletter which is always full of helpful hints and advice from successful indie authors.

    1. The Literary Industrial Complex (hereafter, the LIC, short for LICkspittle) has functioned as a vertical monopoly, or more accurately a vertical oligopoly. Historically the best-known example of this would be the film industry pre-1948, when studios controlled production, distribution and exhibition of their product, a system finally ended by “United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131 (1948) (also known as the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, the Paramount Case, the Paramount Decision or the Paramount Decree) was a landmark United States Supreme Court antitrust case that decided the fate of movie studios owning their own theatres and holding exclusivity rights on which theatres would show their films.” [Wiki, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.]

      In the LIC a limited number of publishers effectively control access to book distribution networks and a majority of sellers (this became especially the case with the advent of the Big box sellers.) When the majority of “first-run” books are only available through bookstores They Who Control Access to those bookstores control what can be “legitimately” published.

      When the primary motivation of the supply chain was providing entertainment to the masses the market’s vertical integration was no problem. Like the Hollywood system (or professional baseball) up-and-coming talent was sought for, developed and promoted, helped to find its rightful spot in the marketplace. As with all such systems, eventually factors beyond talent and marketability comes to rule. In Hollywood it became common for aspiring actors to have to cater to studio executives’ sexual interests, in the LIC it became a matter of conforming to the executives’ intellectual pretensions.

      The rise of independent producers and distribution channels threatens the power of these executives and thus we see rearguard attacks, denials of the legitimacy of independently produced work and efforts to ensure that industry publicity and awards go to the “right” people. The pattern is as old as markets and the disruption thereof, from ancient Egyptian water control to the LIC.

  7. Totally off topic, but certainly of interest to those of us in Texas but this made me LOL

    More to be on topic, and another lol was the police chase … I can see it being someone I went to school with.

          1. Maybe your ISP doesn’t like it. Or maybe all the traffic being driven to it by Sarah’s blog readers has caused it to overheat and catch fire.

            1. I occasionally have that problem with Two Lumps and usually find that switching browser (from Firefox to Chrome) not only accesses the page but “unlocks” it in FF.

              1. I get the same thing with one or two sites I go to. one is a blogger site and I get the blogger 404 page, not just my browser’s, but opening it in Chrome or Midori will open it.

                1. Yeah, it’s possible that the DNS updates haven’t replicated everywhere yet. When I did a Google search, I got an older address that said they had moved, and still got the same error when I tried clicking through from there.

    1. I love this story. I was only 15 or 16 when I first read it. It is timeless. Interesting too, for a book from 1957, the second main character Robin Wednesbury is a tall lovely Negro (it was 1957) girl. I thought the old fiction was only white males?

  8. It’s fascinating. When I started sniffing around the edges of indie Publishing, in mid-2012, the only places to go that had much information collected and readily available were Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, Kris Rusch’s place, and PG’s blog. Joe Konrath had some, but it took a bit of work to slog through (since much improved). And material turned up here, and at MGC. It was Kate’s instructions on how to use KDP, and a little more digging that led to IndieBookLauncher (because Saul left a comment here), that sent my first book out the door.

    Now there are good-to-decent sites with stacks of information all over the place, all easily found and most easily searchable. There are free guides on how to massage Word to get it to work for Kindle. New EPUP and PoD sources are popping up, as are marketing and sales resources. And that’s in three short years. I’d say that a critical mass has built, the reactor is starting to run, and the LICs are going to be unhappy with what the next few years continue to bring.

  9. Thanks for the history lesson! I think I’ve probably benefitted unknowingly from the work y’all did. I appreciate it!

  10. OT: As a Hugheart fan, I recognized what White did in the sample of Soldiers Out of Time.

Comments are closed.